American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society



Funny Money: The Fight of the US Secret Service Against Counterfeit Money

Counterfeiting Currency and Bonds

Paper money, such as bank notes or bonds, was printed by using engraved plates. Beautifully executed designs depicting historical scenes or allegorical figures were meant to safeguard against counterfeiting. However, engravers of counterfeit plates were often highly accomplished craftsmen, which made the detection of counterfeit money difficult. Bank clerks, merchants, and the general public could use books such as Heath’s Counterfeit Detector in order to compare notes against vignettes.


Counterfeit $50 national currency note, first charter period, issued by the Central National Bank of New York City, 1864 (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

The plates from which the counterfeits on the above bank were printed were engraved by Charles H. Ulrich for Henry C. Cole of Philadelpia, PA. The pair were described in a New York Times article of 1879 as, “the most extraordinary criminals in their line of counterfeiting.” Ulrich, who came from Germany, was a master engraver, while Cole “shoved” (passed on) the various notes they produced. In the case of the counterfeit displayed above, Ulrich commenced, in December, 1876, the engraving of the plates at his house, at the corner of Sixth and Chamberland Streets, Philadelphia, PA., and finished them in March, 1877, at the house of one Jacob Ott at Oak Lane, PA., a station about six miles from Philadelphia. Here the notes were printed by Ott and were put on the market in Baltimore, MD. on May 10, 1877. On April 1, 1880, one Philip H. Hargrave was arrested in New York for dealing in counterfeit silver coin. In order to secure his release on April 2, 1880, he surrendered to the government the plates from the fifty-dollar notes. Interestingly, no genuine note of this issue appears to exist, perhaps because the bank withdrew them after the counterfeits appeared.

Heath’s Infallible Counterfeit Detector at Sight: Applicable to All Banks in the United States and Canada with Genuine Bank-note Designs by the American Bank-Note Company, New York and Boston. Banking and Counting House edition. (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

This book, which was first written by Laban Heath in 1864, was a guide to government notes of the United States and Canada and on how to detect a counterfeit note. As such counterfeit notes were printed from engraved plates, details of engraving were essential for a detailed comparison. Bank clerks, merchants, and the general public could use books such as Heath’s Counterfeit Detector in order to compare notes against vignettes. The book enjoyed considerable popularity and was issued in many different editions and sizes over several years. Other such counterfeit detector guides existed as well.